Boris Johnson has insisted the UK is not making concessions to France over fishing rights, after President Emmanuel Macron put plans for retaliatory action on hold for 72 hours while further talks take place.
Mr Macron’s Europe minister Clement Beaune said the last-minute delay to sanctions which had been due due to take effect on Tuesday morning was prompted by indications from the UK that it was ready to accelerate the process of finding a settlement to the dispute over licences for French boats to fish off the Channel Islands.
Mr Beaune said a response to French proposals was expected from London by the end of Wednesday.
But Downing Street today insisted there was no change to its position on the handling of applications for fishing permits as set out in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) governing UK/EU relations following Brexit.
And Mr Johnson told a press conference at the Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow that the row was “vanishingly unimportant” compared to the task of halting global warming.
But asked if he was ready to offer more generous terms to Paris in order to keep talks alive, he said: “You ask whether the UK has changed its position on the fishing issue. The answer is No.”
A No 10 spokesperson said that Brexit minister Lord Frost would use a meeting with Mr Beaune in Paris on Thursday to raise the separate problem of the Irish border, in a further indication of the UK seeking to bypass the European Commission and speak directly to member states on the issue.
A source close to Lord Frost told The Independent: “We’re happy to keep talking to them and we may respond, but it’s not going to be a change in position. We stand by our methodology on fish.”
Meanwhile, the Jersey government suggested that Mr Macron’s climbdown was triggered by its willingness to reconsider about five or six of the 55 applications to fish it has previously rejected. The cases relate to vessels said to be replacements for boats which formerly fished off the island.
“I think that would be quite a good way to move things forward and allow more time,” said Jersey minister of external affairs Ian Gorst.
“The French have taken the view that it is better to try and to deal with the individual vessels than trigger counter-measures whereby everybody will become entrenched.”
Downing Street said that the UK welcomed Mr Macron’s decision to step back from threats to close French ports to British boats, impose tighter checks on goods lorries and target electricity supplies to the Channel Islands.
The spokesperson said that Britain was ready to seek a “consensual” resolution to the dispute, which relates to only a few dozen boats but is regarded as a “life or death” issue by the French fishermen involved.
Asked if Mr Beaune was right to suggest the UK would respond to French proposals by Wednesday, the spokesperson said: “In terms of the process as it as it stands, we will continue to look at applications for fishing licences as set out in the TCA and we will continue to work with any fishermen to look at their application and where they are valid and we can grant fishing licences, we will continue to do so.
“Our process remains the same, based on the methodology… as per the TCA with regard to what evidence and data licences need to be supported by in order to be granted. Of course, we will listen to what France have to say. And we are we are open to find consensual solutions together if we can.”
Speaking late on Monday, Mr Beaune said that Paris had received “the first indications from the British authorities that the process can be sped up”. After talks with Lord Frost, he said that “a response to the most recent French proposals is expected by Wednesday”.
Mr Beaune said that Thursday’s meeting would involved an “in-depth discussion on the difficulties relating to the application of the agreements between the UK and EU”.
And he said: “In order to allow the dialogue to proceed freely, the measures announced and prepared by France will not be applied before this meeting and before the consideration of Britain’s new responses on fishing licences.”
The development came amid confusion over the fate of a Scottish-registered scallop vessel seized by French authorities and detained at the port of Le Havre.
Environment secretary George Eustice claimed on Tuesday that the Cornelis Gert Jan had been released.
But the director of the vessel’s owner Macduff Shellfish said the firm expects the boat to remain in the hands of the French authorities until another court hearing on Wednesday.
And a prosecuting source in Le Havre confirmed the Scottish vessel was still “subject to legal negotiations” and would have to pay a deposit of just over £125,000 before she could return home.
Jeremy Lhomel, a fisherman based in the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer, said the inability to access British waters was catastrophic for those earning a living from fishing in the Channel.
He told the PA news agency: “This situation with the licences, we think there’s a lot of bad faith because we are small family boats, we have three, four people on board, we don’t empty the sea, we deal with very few fish, and for us the situation is catastrophic because we can no longer access these waters.
“For us it’s vital to get these licences so that we can fish; it’s a matter of life or death.”
The UK has granted more than 1,700 licences to EU vessels wishing to fish in its waters since Brexit, which London says is around 98 per cent of the total. The dispute revolves around a limited number of smaller boats which do not stray far from the French coast.
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